Thursday 29 September 2005

Always read what it says on the box

I recently took delivery of a batch of CD's for review. Some of them found their way into our CD player in the car when we went away for the weekend; we often do this sort of pre-review listening. One disc gave us a real shock, expecting a soothing stream of Gregorian Chant what we got was wonderfully raucous and vibrant, polyphonic Georgian folk music (and sacred music). The disc is entitled Georgian Journey but of course, I'd read the title as Gregorian Journey. I'm glad I made the mistake as we both love the CD all ready. So some mistakes do have a happy ending. (The disc is on RAUMKLANG, RK-2304 1/2, the company's website is here, its title is Georgische Reise in German.

Wednesday 28 September 2005

Recent CD review

My review of the William Primrose performances of Walton and Casadesus Viola concertos, plus Harold in Italy by Berlioz is now on Music Web here.

Tuesday 27 September 2005

Season starts

Last night was the 2nd London Concord Singers rehearsal of the new season. Amongst the St. Cecila themed works that we are rehearsing is my motet, I Vespri di Santa Cecilia written in 1995 for the choir's 30th anniversary celebrations. Its strange re-visiting works as a performer, especially when you wrote them some time ago. My memory of the motet was that it was quite complete, but seen in the light of things I've written since, it is relatively straightforward; mind you there are some tricky corners, it is certainly needs working on. Currently we are working just on the chorus part (8 parts), later on we will then add the 6 soloists making a grand total of 14 parts. The main problem with learning the piece is that it is bi-tonal (and then some). I'll report back later on progress when we start to put it together.

I celebrated the new season by doing lots of web admin, I got all our web-pages up to date with concert dates and works to be performed plus sending off our concert information to the various useful sites which list them:-

Monday 26 September 2005

La Fanciulla del West

To Covent Garden on Saturday to see Puccini's opera, La Fanciulla del West. Based on Belasco's play The Girl of the Golden West, which was made into a film starring Barbara Stanwyck, the opera is an unlikely amalgam of Italian operatic sentiment and the American Wild West.

The Royal Opera's production was new in 1977, it was intended to celebrate the American Bicentennial but arrived a year late. At the time he worked on the production, designer Kenneth Adam had also been working on production design for the James Bond movies. He and director Piero Faggioni came up with a hyper realistic setting. The production was heavily refurbished for this outing, in fact there had been rumours of its demise. The good news it that it still looks good and that the production values remain high.

It is easy to send up Puccini's spaghetti western and over-do all the character acting in the small roles and it is a tribute to the Royal Opera that the production still remains firmly realistic, taking itself seriously and never sending itself up. This sort of opera, with a host of small roles, is one that Covent Garden does well. The characters who inhabit Minne's bar were all strongly cast from Young Artist Robert Murray playing Harry to Robert Lloyd as Ashby and Francis Egerton as Nick. Egerton has been performing at the Royal Opera almost as long as I have been going and I am pretty sure that he played the barman Nick in the first performances of this production. His voice is certainly showing signs of age, but his performance remains a strong one.

But of course, not only needs a strong supporting cast but strong principals. As the bandit Dick Johnson/Ramirez Jose Cura might not have looked sufficiently dangerous, Gary Cooper he ain't, but his voice was another matter; for the entire evening he produced a gorgeous stream of sound, truly sexy. As Minne, Andrea Gruber looked a bit Mumsy, which is perhaps a valid view of Minnie. In the more dramatic scenes her big, vibrato laden voice paid off and she was a fine partner for Cura; but in the opening act, when Minnie has to be more low key, her voice was less suited to the part and you missed a greater sense of line.

As the sheriff, Mark Delavan made a very human villain so that in the early parts of the opera one could be sorry for him. Delvan cut a very impressive figure on the stage and turned Rance into the larger than life figure that he should be. All in all the three principals made a finely balance team, which is something that you can't always say in opera nowadays.

The disadvantage of this production were obvious from the beginning of Act 1, the wooden floor of the bar might be realistic but it is also noisy, any major chorus movement was accompanied by the creak of floorboards. Goodness knows what it sounded like on Radio 3 (Saturday's performance was a simultaneous broadcast). The opera is a substantial 3 act affair, but the problems changing the scenes meant that the intervals were billed to last 35 minutes each and in fact over-ran. After the first interval we returned to our seats to find that we could still hear the whine of an electric drill.

My partner David, who was seeing the opera for the first time, commented that he felt that designer and director could have been a little more imaginative and used the revolve somewhat, to give us a production which was realistic but whose scene changes were rather simpler. Still, it was a great evening. The orchestra, under Pappano, played well and from the opening notes Pappano gave us a performance which combined impetus with flexibility. I'm not sure that I need to see this production again in a hurry, but it has made me think about buying a recording again. I must see what is available.

Saturday 24 September 2005

Redemption through Love

I've been listening to bits of The Ring again, having reviewed the entire thing earlier this year for Music and Vision. One snippet was the Immolation scene recorded by Frieda Leider in 1927. She has a wonderfully lyric voice, with fabulous shapely phrasing so you start to wonder how big her voice really was. Is has that sort of pre-war focus which makes it tricky to assess; in real live did she sound like Anne Evans or Kirsten Flagstad? Perhaps we'll never know, but her live records do give you the impression that she did not quite have the sheer power of Flagstad and Nilson.

The scene reminded me again how, for me, one of the most moving parts of the entire Tetralogy is not a vocal scene, but the orchestral section after Brunnhilde has stopped singing when the Rhine innundates the stage. The Rhinemaidens' theme in the orchestra is counterpointed with other themes from the cycle, providing almost a potted summation of the Ring. I find the moment when the 'Redemption through Love' theme returns most magical.

We're off to see La Fanciulla del West tonight at Covent Garden; more redemption through love. After all, the opera is about a barmaid who loves a bandit.

I've been updating my own web site ( so it now has all the correct news. It was woefully out of date. Having been experimenting with Audioblog, the 1st 4 audio blog tracks are now published on the site here.

Tuesday 20 September 2005

Petra von Kant

We went to see the premiere of Gerald Barry's new opera Petra von Kant at the London Coliseum on Friday. My review for Music and Vision is here.

The audience was distressingly thin, especially as this was the first night of the new season and the premiere of a new opera by a popular composer. Whilst I did not enjoy the opera as much as some of the other reviewers, Sean Doran's season is full of good things and it would be a shame if further goodies were jeopardised by poor audience. So we must hope that attendance picks up; there were a significant number of people there who were very enthusiastic at the end.

Saturday 17 September 2005

Recent CD Reviews

2 more CD reviews have come on line

The first is a fine disc of Tallis from the Oxford Camerata. Not unnaturally this includes Spem in Alium in a performance which was probably highly reminiscent of the one we heard at the Edington Festival only, on the disc I was less enamoured of the way the engineers had caught the acoustic of All Hallows Church, Gospel Oak, where the pieces were recorded

The second is fascinating, if not for everyday listening, a complete performance of the Jewish service, the First S'Lihot, sung by Cantor Benzion Miller. For someone brought up in an entirely different religious tradition, this is fascinating indeed.

Thursday 15 September 2005

Orchestral Manoevres

We are planning another orchestral concert next year to showpiece my orchestral music. As before (September 2003) The Salomon Orchestra will be playing but at a new venue, St. James's Church, Piccadilly, London

We are planning performances of 2 of my pieces, In the Barbarian's Camp and Elegy; this latter is a substantial setting, for Baritone and orchestra, of Rilke's Second Duino Elegy. I have set it in the original German so am relieved that a German baritone friend is going to sing the solo-part; perhaps having a native speaker will help correct some of the errors I have made in setting the German. Despite singing in German and speaking it (very badly), I found setting it surprisingly difficult; hard to get it feeling natural without losing my own distinctive voice.

So I have just been back to the scores; having sent a set off to the conductor and I preparing a piano reduction so that the baritone can try the piece out with a pianist. I generally work directly into short score, so any piece I write has to be re-transcribed for piano reduction - a rather tedious but necessary process. Finale can do this automatically, but I generally find that the results do not look very well on the page nor lie easily under the fingers; not that my own efforts in reduction are likely to be too much better.

Revisiting the score has made me realise how much work there is to do to tidy up the full score so that I can produce well ordered instrumental parts. Much of it needs phrasing added and there are parts which need distributing between 1st and 2nd wind players to allow players time to breathe etc. I have found in the past that the more work I put in at this stage, the more time we save later. The problem with having an electronic music publishing system is that it is easy to produce badly thought out and badly laid out parts at the touch of a button. I'm hoping not to do this.

Wednesday 14 September 2005

Recent CD reviews

Two reviews have recently been posted on music web. A pleasant disc of Gregorian chant from the all male group Pro Cantione Antiqua, review is here

More problematically, a rather disappointing disc of Jewish choral music from the Vienna Boys Choir is here.

Tuesday 13 September 2005

A dose of the clap - the irresistable rise of applause

Last night we finally caught up with the South Bank Show's film about Margot Fonteyn, the English ballerina with the Royal Ballet. Regarding the Royal Ballet's first visit to America, where the reaction of the New York audience was astounding, one of the now elderly participants recalled the unbridled way that the audience applauded. Nowadays were are acustomed, in ballet, to the audience applauding whenever a dancer does something astounding. This is behaviour which would not commend itself to Dame Ninette de Valois, the founder of the Royal Ballet. In one of her books she makes it quite clear that she dislikes applause because it breaks into the theatrical magic; I seem to remember that she would even have liked to stop applause at the end of a ballet because it turns the theatrical characters back into actors playing a part.

This feeling that an audience has a right to applaud whenever they are impressed is now creeping into orchestral music. It is becoming more common for audiences to applaud at the end of a movement, completely ignoring the composer's intentions regarding dramatic structure; as if the acknowledgement of the listener's presence and appreciation is more important than the composer's intentions.

Effectively audiences are asserting their right to participate in a performance rather then dumbly sitting there. Unfortunately many audience members are thereby displaying their lack of understanding of some of the fundamentals of musical construction. This is nowhere more obvious than in 19th century opera with the pairing of cavatina and cabaletta. This construction, where a slow-ish short-ish solo number is followed by/interrupted by some dialogue which changes the mood leading directly into a bravura cabaletta, has its origins in opera seria. The structure was developed by composers like Handel as a means of keeping the leading singer on stage for longer. In opera seria the convention was that the singer left the stage after each major aria; by introducing a short, strophic number before the main aria the singer was thus kept on stage for longer. That the construction was statisfactory is shown by its large-scale adoption by 19th century Romantic opera composers. Unfortunately audiences repeatedly disregard the music's structure and applause after the cavatina, thus completely breaking the mood. Understandable in less familiar operas, this is profoundly annoying in more familiar operas such as Verdi's La Traviata, where the majority of the audience must surely know what is coming.

It would of course, be unfair to artists to ban applause entirely. But I do feel that we should start to try and educate audiences rather than blindly letting them clap whenever they want to. Unfortunately this sort of education treads on the toes of current concerns, raising issues of audience rights and the spectre of elitism as it is becoming increasingly unfashionable to know something about anything. Or am I just being cynical

Monday 12 September 2005

Recent CD Review

Here's my latest CD review on MusicWeb, Grieg's Peer Gynt complete with a cut down version of Ibsen's text - quite, quite fascinating.

Thursday 8 September 2005

Recent Article

Here's a new article of Music and Vision, thoughts on staging Handel operas arising from having seen ENO's stagings of both Semele and Jephtha last season.

Washing the Magi's Face

I've now reached the stage with my new choral work, The Magi, that I feel confident it does really exist and have produced a Web Page. So I'm now at the stage of washing its face (or perhaps washing their faces) - a term used, I think, originally by Vaughan Williams. In my case, this means that I am constantly thumping out bits of the score on the piano, usually very slowly, and occasionally alter odd notes. Its rare for a piece to reach this stage and then require major surgery, but it does happen. I sometimes have radical re-thinks about endings; in fact I am still not sure about the end the The Magi but I'm sitting on that at the moment.

I am also working on a leaflet to publicise my collection of motets, Tempus per Annum; I'm hoping to send these out during this month along with CD's of the 4 advent motets, recorded at my birthday concert this July. I am also putting these recordings on the web. I've already posted 2 to this blog, using AudioBlog and will be doing the rest this week, or early next. They will also go on my own website as I plan to have a radical overhaul of the midi and mp3 files, in the light of the facilities provided by AudioBlog (

Wednesday 7 September 2005


I had intended to be writing about Peau d'Ane, the 1970 film directed by Jacques Demy which is being shown in the National Film Theatre's Catherine Deneuve Season. Unfortunately we had one of those tedious evenings that you occasionally have when you live in a city, travel by bicycle and are as forgetful as I am. Having left my bag at a stop en-route from work, we ended up spending a happy hour or more cycling round central London to little effect (though I was re-united with my bag). The end result, we retired home shattered and had cauliflower cheese instead!

The cultural Season starts next week. We are off to the opening night of Gerald Barry's The Bitter Tear's of Petra von Kant at the London Coliseum on Friday 16th. I'm looking forward to it, though my only reservation is that Barry has evidently set Rainer Werner Fassbinder's play uncut, which means that the opera is likely to be rather wordy.

I found this with The Silver Tassie, even though Amanda Holden had done a superb job filleting the Sean O'Casey's play. Turnage set the words in a naturalistic manner and the result came over, to me, as more of a radio play with musical accompaniment than real opera. I'll be reviewing Barry's opera and will report back.

Tuesday 6 September 2005


The second motet from Tempus Per Annum, performed by the Eight:Fifteen Vocal Ensemble conducted by Malcolm Cottle, recorded live at St. Giles Cripplegate in July 2005

Monday 5 September 2005

Last Prom

We went to our final Prom of the season on Saturday, an orchestra of students from the Royal Academy of Music and from the Julliard School, conducted by Sir Colin Davis. The programme opened with a thrilling performance of Copland's Fanfare for the Common Man, then went on to Vaughan Williams's Sixth Symphony. The 1st 3 movements worked very well, and I could hardly fault the orchestra or Davis's direction, but was not so certain about the final movement. The symphony was written in the 1940's and the final movement, which is played pianissimo throughout, is commonly held to refer to Hiroshima though the composer always denied this. The student players were technically in command and played beautifully, but never seemed to quite plumb the depths, or perhaps Davis's direction was too laid back. It can't have helped that the audience were constantly coughing, almost as if people wanted to sabotage the performance.

We were sitting at the top of the circle in a very full Royal Albert Hall; I'm not really sure why this particular Prom was so popular. But as the concert progressed, the heat became intolerable and I found it increasingly difficult to concentrate. Whatever else they have done whilst renovating the Hall in recent years, they have not introduced cooling to the upper reaches. So, for the first 3 movements of Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique I could only intermittently enjoy the performance, but in the last 2 movements the students relished the more outrageous of Berlioz's demands and the performance seemed to take off, or perhaps just my interest in it.

The orchestra had a huge string section, which sounded brilliant, but I was slightly worried about balance; something that I have felt in other Colin Davis performances. When strings were playing full pelt the completely dominated the woodwind, and I am not sure that either Berlioz or RVW would have wanted this.

Sunday 4 September 2005

Audio: Ad Te Levavi

My motet Ad Te Levavi from Tempus per Annum, recorded Live at St. Giles Cripplegate, London on 1st July 2001; the eight:fifteen vocal ensemble conducted by Macolm Cottle

Saturday 3 September 2005

A little experiment, I'm publishing some of my recordings on the web. Here's a track from my Passion, recorded in 1999 by The Burgundian Cadence


I've been keeping a log of my CD reviewing activites for MusicWeb over the last Month, its here.

Friday 2 September 2005

Recent CD Reviews

Mantovani, by Special Request volume 2

Last Night's Prom

We went to the Late Night Prom last night; the Sixteen conducted by Harry Christophers in a programme of music by Robert Wylkynson, William Cornysh and Thomas Tallis. The attraction, for me, was that they were opening the concert with Wylkynson's amazing 13-part canon,Jesus autem transiens/Credo in unum deum. Few of Wylkynson's works survive but some do in the Eton Choir Book, which is were the music for the canon comes from. Wylkynson was keen on numerical symbolism, his Salve Regina setting is for 9 voices, each part labelled with the name of one of the 9 ranks of angels (Angels, Archangels, Thrones, Dominations, Princedoms, Powers, Seraphim, Cherubim, + 1 more). For the creed, the 13 part canon represents Christ and the 12 Apostles. It is written for just 13 men and is rather taxing; the vocal line is rather high in places for the basses and rather low in places for the tenors. I have sung in it twice, with London Concord Singers, and it was interesting to hear the men of the Sixteen having similar problems as we did, though being professionals they disguised it far better than we. The result was stunning, particularly the middle section when all of the 13 parts are going; wonderful chaos really.

The concert finished with a performance of Tallis's Spem in Alium so Harry Christophers had quite a large choir to play with and play with it he did. Rather than thinning it down for the other items, he used quite a large group and selected voices from it for the different sections of the pieces. So that in Cornysh's Salve Regina we had small scale semi-chorus sections contrasted with large scale pieces. This approach worked wonderfully in the echoing spaces of the Albert Hall. Where it became a little annoying was in the performance of Tallis's 9 Psalm Tunes from Archbishop Parker's metrical Psalter; the most famous of which was the tune used by Vaughan Williams for his Tallis Fantasia. For the Psalm Tunes, all short pieces, Christophers had the members of the choir constantly on the move into different groups, for no apparent reason.

Still, all was redeemed by a sublime performance of Tallis's Gaude Gloriosa, but the reason why the hall was so very full was the final item in the programme, Spem in Alium. Interestingly, the performance included at least 1 singer who sang at Edington last Saturday (the choir also included 2, if not 3 pregnant women). Whereas Jeremy Summerly at Edington used 1 soprano, 1 alto (male or female) with male voices on the lower parts in each choir, Christophers uses 2 sopranos, 1 alto (male), 1 tenor, 1 bass; I think they sang the piece in a higher key I think, though nothing was said in the programme. They also used 2 chamber organs for continuo (which is probably authentic). The performance seemed lighter, swifter (and higher) than at Edington. Lovely, but not as moving but then Edington was a far smaller venue. Christophers and his group seemed to be moving their interpretation more in the direction of the Clerkes of Oxenford and their astonishing performances.

Thursday 1 September 2005

More plans

Well, I got a nice surprise at last night's committee meeting; London Concord Singer's December concert will have something of a St. Cecilia theme and one of the works planned is my motet I Vespri di Santa Cecilia. It was written for the choir's 30th anniversay in 1996 and is in 14 parts (8-part choir and 6 soloists) and sets various antiphons for St. Cecilia's Day from the Roman Missal. Its one of those pieces which plays with bi-tonality and with the sense that one group in the ensemble lead the others astray as one tonality dominates over another. This sense of dynamic in the voicing is something that I rather like. In my early cantata Vocibus Mulierum, the final movement opens with the choir singing a setting of the Latin Litany of the Blessed Virgin. The mezzo-soprano soloist enters, singing my translation of a speech by Maria Deraisnes, a French 19th Century Feminist, 'I decline to be an angel'. By the end of the movement she has seduced all the women into her way of thinking, leaving just the men chugging through the litany on their own.

I look forward to revisiting I Vespri, though I'm not planning any changes; I'll leave looking at it till the first rehearsal when it will be a nice surprise. When so much time has elapsed it is almost as if the music was written by some other guy, and whilst he gets some things wrong, he gets some things right as well! The piece also exists in a 30 part version, but I'm not holding my breath about getting that performed.

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